Differently-Abled in High Heels: Carol Rama at the New Museum
Carol Rama: Antibodies at the New Museum
April 26 to September 10, 2017
235 Bowery (between Rivington and Stanton streets)
New York, newmuseum.org
The exhibition’s opening room evokes her work’s recusancy to the notions of corporeal perfection or wholesomeness. A plump, naked woman (except for her dress shoes) sticks out her tongue while taking a big shit; a girl crowned with a laurel wreath blows the viewer a raspberry while grasping a snake rearing up from her vagina; a woman with exposed breasts kneels insouciantly as two men wag an improbable number of penises in her face. The images’ brazenness is belied by their delicate format, watercolors of relatively small dimensions. The sheer difference of Rama’s bodies is striking – a great number of them women in wheelchairs, or strapped to asylum beds. In this imagery lurks the shadow of her parents’ mental illness, source of an anguish that informs her entire oeuvre. Yet the women in Rama’s wheelchairs wear elegant high heels; they return the viewer’s gaze. Particularly for a time when differently abled bodies (and minds) – to say nothing of women at large – were hardly celebrated as active agents, Rama’s work is truly striking, and resonates with a decided contemporary relevance. As much as gallows humor, it is often an exuberant joy in the face of anguish which her work bears out.
Rama’s production proved consistently inventive over more than six decades – a period which saw her explore geometric abstraction, expressionist etchings, bronze sculpture, collage, and assemblage in a range of materials and formats. Interspersed alongside wall texts (often frustratingly huddled at the New Museum to one side of the wall), quotes by Rama lend context – and irreverent levity – to many of the works. Anchored by the opening room of early paintings and drawings, the exhibition wraps around flanking galleries in a continuous flow, beginning with work completed not long before her death in 2006, back along the stretch of various decades. Some of her most recent paintings feature anonymous, nude male bodies with sexual members in full spate. One of Rama’s quotes discusses how irrelevant to her such sex organs are compared to the mouth – “the mouth, that’s real desire.” We find, in fact, disembodied mouths in several instances (her watercolors, for example), along with other free-floating body parts. Over the drawing of a foot (from some treatise on classical statuary) (2005), Rama painted the toenails black, adding a hand-written note about the under-appreciated eroticism of the male foot: “with its toenails painted black and gold I’d want to lick it.”
The body also undergoes various levels of abstraction, as in a series from 2001 (Heroic I and II) which render crouching, cut-out forms almost as hieroglyphs. Rama’s figurative facility is matched by a keen penchant for abstraction, whether of urinals rendered as floating forms, or large-scale collages incorporating patches of leather and other materials, composed as recently as 1999. The formal equilibrium and sophistication of these works – still redolent of the shallow, post-Cubist space which was the domain of so much mid-century modernism – testify to Rama’s role in Italy’s Arte Concreta movement in the 1950s, one of her only associations with an organized movement or school. A few hard-edged, geometric canvases from the early 1970s reveal the lasting influence of this geometricizing tendency upon her work. Yet one would look in vain for some neat chronological or teleological progression. Just as Rama shrugged off Arte Concreta for Informalist-style works since the 1960s (themselves an anachronism by then), she returned to neatly composed abstract composition in the 1970s, wrought from sliced bicycle tires. One such work from 1970 (Even More Space Than Time) sets a bulging (but flat) black form and solid line against a white expanse of canvas, reminiscent of Motherwell’s Elegies, and revealing an astute feeling for the power of empty space.Rama’s use of bicycle tires bears autobiographical import. For, it was her father’s failed bicycle and tire factory which led to his depression and eventual suicide. The reworking of bicycle rubber in so many instances suggests a literal working-through of that trauma, about which Rama spoke openly. Rather than solely using it for fastidious abstractions, however, Rama often employed loose rubber strips, whether dangling from canvases or incorporated into assemblages such as Spells (1984). More than any piece in the show, this one suggests the resonance of Turin’s prominent Arte Povera scene with some of Rama’s work, which already had included real objects (whether syringes or other detritus) as early as the 1950s. Whether with old needles appended to a canvas, or those early 1940s asylum paintings, Rama long concerned herself with fact of pain. Yet her work’s unselfconsciousness evinces an almost apotropaic effect against suffering, a re-channeling of forms of mental complexity into complex forms. The bronze phallus in the sculpture of a high-heel shoe (2003) suggests the enduring influence of Surrealism upon Rama. But here, it is a female artist who has wrested the fetish object to her own poetic (and decidedly gendered) ends.
In Rama’s paintings of the 1980s we find further echoes of Surrealist figuration, though here they find expression once again on paper, in a series of works centering upon exotic-looking bodies in reverie or some sort of ecstasy (Teletta, 1983; Venezie, 1983). Many of them are painted over maps or architectural elevations, creating layered fields of imagery and out of scale spaces. Edmo (1983) suggests an Etruscan painting (perhaps a funerary image) of two men, suggesting – to a modern audience –erotic impropriety. One wonders what she thought of the Italian Transavanguardia and its revival of figuration and its postmodernist citation during these same years. Indeed, something of Francesco Clemente’s work resonates with Rama’s whimsical figures and appeals to eastern tropes. Yet Rama remained her own individual to the end. Reprising assemblage and abstraction in her final years, she also painted large-scale male nudes on canvas and pursued other collages on paper. Rama once commented that she had once considered becoming a nun, but instead began to paint “coarse pictures.” There remains something of the prayer in her work – votive offerings to vitality in the face of death, and pleasure in spite of great pain.